Beware, as backlash beckons for rising Irish superstar Saoirse Ronan
We're going to love/hate actress Ronan's success, writes Sarah Caden, but she has to forget about our opinion to be a real star
Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30
When you're a 21-year-old girl, part of your life's work is to second-guess what people think of you.
If you're an Irish 21-year-old girl, there is an added element to this - a constant fear of anyone thinking that you think you are great. Even in the age of constant selfies and shows of self-confidence, this is how it is to be a 21-year-old Irish girl. Even if you're a 21-year-old Irish actress. In fact, maybe especially if you're a 21-year-old Irish actress.
To date, Saoirse Ronan - a 21-year-old Irish actress - has made a charm of her earthy ordinariness. She has never faux pooh-poohed her talents or achievements, but the desire to seem down-to-earth has always been huge in her.
It's there in the Bronx-born, Carlow-raised native's voice, which has developed an ever broader Dublin accent in proportion to the rise of her star. It's there in her award-acceptance speeches, such as last Monday's, when she won Best Actress for Brooklyn at the New York Film Critics Circle awards. She referred to herself as "Saoirse from the block", referring to the Bronx, and apologised for interrupting dessert. Her celeb peers loved it, because they love nothing more than to feel down-to-earth themselves.
In those circles down-to-earth is hard to hang on to, however. And she's smart enough to know that and to know that in Ireland, that can easily become people thinking you think you're great, and a backlash. Which shouldn't matter. But when you're Irish and you're 21, it always does. Why else would she try so hard to be ordinary, even as her life becomes more extraordinary by the day?
Since her win on Monday in New York, Ronan has been nominated for a Bafta for Brooklyn. She's also tipped for her second Oscar nomination, having been first shortlisted at the age of 13, for her role in Atonement. And Ronan proved herself well able for the Academy Awards with Monday night's acceptance, judging shrewdly that mix of humility and humour that make for the memorable Oscar moments. In the big leagues, it's about more than just talent, it's about your ability to be a star, and the noise around Saoirse Ronan is that she has it. To be a hit on Ellen DeGeneres's chat show, is to prove that you've made it, and Saoirse Ronan achieved that last week, albeit for reasons she might not love.
Ellen is the host who does wonders for celebrity egos and images, by making the big names appear ever so easygoing and able to laugh at themselves. With Ronan, the Ellen effect was even greater. It wasn't just Ronan's game-for-a-laugh wearing of a sandwich board bearing the phonetic pronunciation of her name that did it.
Instead, it was her thrice-plugging of Dublin nail bar Tropical Popical which made it onto Vine - "the entertainment network where videos and personalities get really big, really fast" - where it went viral.
It's always the unexpected stuff that signals a switch in status. It sounds like nothing: 21-year-old gets nails done. So what? And yet. And yet. Despite Ronan's determinedly down-home image, the ability of three mentions of two little words to go viral suggests something more.
This wasn't an ingenue Irish girl who just happened to be on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. This was taken as 'big star does some name-dropping'. That might not sit comfortably with Ronan - who speaks in interviews about eschewing Snapchat in favour of fine literature, and celebrated her Monday award-win with her mother and a glass of wine in front of the telly - but she'll have to get used to it. This is her world now, no matter how broad her brogue is and how much she says she's from the block.
Part of what's tricky for Saoirse Ronan is that she started out as a child in an adult world. We've seen over and over in acting how the transition from child star to taken-seriously adult is a tricky one to navigate.
Your cuteness inevitably evaporates. The premature wisdom greater than their years becomes embarrassingly practised. The pressures of puberty and adolescence lived out in the spotlight and in a world of working adults can cause kids to grow up warped and a bit weird. Casualties of the transition have often melted down into substance abuse, or simply dropped off or been pushed off the radar.
None of the above has befallen Saoirse Ronan. She has kept her head and kept her charm, which is no mean feat. She hasn't become a looks-obsessed ninny, she hasn't become painfully celeb-pally, she hasn't lost the run of herself.
If anything, she sometimes seems overly keen to appear more wise and mature than her years, and more so than anyone would ask of her. She's 21, so she's allowed to be a bit silly, but she never is. Her sense of humour is always very carefully judged to convey her solid character and if you remember how it feels to be 21, it's certainly not solid.
That desire to seem mature and composed was there last week in her public plea for better, more substantial roles for actresses of her age. You can see how, with more than a decade of experience, an Oscar nomination under her belt and a good head on her shoulders, Ronan would want roles that aren't second fiddle or silly, but still, this is an odd echo of the plea we more often hear from older women. She has youth, that is, so what has she to complain about?
From an Irish perspective, Ronan will need to stop caring what people think about her if she wants to go all the way. Over here, the pattern is that we'll love her for what she achieves - for our vain national benefit - and begrudge the perceived changes in her. That's just the way it goes. But that shouldn't stop her.
What 21-year-old's learn eventually is that you'll never please some people; so just be yourself.